Albany showed some initiative
Newsday on the beginning of the New York state legislative season
New York voters put every elective body of state government and six of Long Island’s nine Senate seats in the hands of the Democratic Party in November. Now, after a bumpy run-up and a few missteps, the state has a new $175.6 billion budget that is transformative in several important aspects of our lives. It has the potential to change our commuting habits, how we shop, how we vote and how we treat criminal defendants.
It was still Albany, though. There were compromises and deals made behind closed doors. Significant policy was stuffed into the budget without much debate. And there were a few last-minute surprises. But New Yorkers got mostly the type of budget and some of the social reforms they sought in one of the most sweeping and significant sessions since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office in 2011:
A permanent property-tax cap will require municipalities and school districts to get 60 percent approval to hike taxes by more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation. Until now, the cap had to be renewed.
Fees to drive into Manhattan below 61st Street and a tax on high-dollar real estate purchases will fund improvements to the Long Island Rail Road and city subways.
Criminal justice reforms will improve access to evidence for defendants and mostly eliminate the need to post bail for 90 percent of those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which disproportionately kept young men of color behind bars until their cases were resolved. Lawmakers, however, should revisit their classifications; some offenses are rightly categorized as violent crimes.
Single-use plastic bags will be banned statewide.
A new commission is likely to usher in public campaign financing and end fusion voting. That’s the practice of letting candidates appear on the ballot lines of multiple parties, which has a corrupting influence on local politics.
School districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties will get $3 billion more in school aid, but with an increase at the lowest rate in eight years, due to concerns about an economic slowdown. Percentage-wise, Senate Democrats delivered for Long Island as well as Senate Republicans had in the past.
The budget came after passage of a flurry of bills earlier in the session that had been stymied for years; they strengthen gun safety, secure abortion rights, and expand the years in which a victim of childhood sexual abuse can sue.
Plenty did not get done, including legalizing sports betting, which the state should, and legalizing recreational marijuana, for which the legislative slowdown makes sense. And Senate Democrats did not entirely prove they know how to play at a higher level. Cuomo was at his calculating best and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie showed a veteran’s panache, while Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins hasn’t mastered a very liberal caucus that doesn’t understand retaining power requires it to accommodate more moderate political views.
Still, Albany moved further forward this legislative session than it has in quite some time.